Who or What Is a Missionary?

Sabbath School Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, September 5, 2015

The word missionary usually brings to mind a picture of someone serving far away. Webster’s Dictionary defines a missionary as someone “who is sent to a foreign country to do religious work.” (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, n.d.) We regularly collect special offerings for these missionaries; if you are old enough, you might remember going from door-to-door with Ingathering cans to raise money to help those missionaries spread the gospel. You might even been on a mission trip or two yourself – helping a community by offering medical care, teaching classes, building homes and churches or digging wells – all while sharing what you believe. It all sounds like an archetype or an outdated scheme, so, what does it mean now? What does it mean to me? How does this work in real life with work, family and the myriad of obligations that we are faced with?

Let’s start by examining what the word “missionary” truly means. What type of person leaves their home and devotes their lives to the intangible idea of religious work? Through the story of Philip we get an expanded view of the mission field and the character traits of a missionary. Philip was not one of the twelve disciples, he was a member of the early church who willingly traveled from community to community meeting needs and sharing his faith. His story shows us that a missionary needs: a strong faith relationship, the ability to listen and the willingness to act on what he or she hears.

First and foremost, a missionary needs a strong faith relationship with the LORD. Through Philip we see that relationship. Although the Bible does not spend a great deal of time detailing Philip’s family life and background we can infer from his actions that Philip had a vibrant relationship with God and strong faith. How can we make that inference? According to the book of Acts, “those who were scattered preached the word wherever they went.” (Acts 8:4 NIV). An interesting thought brought out by E.G. White in a Review and Herald article is that God “permitted” the early church members to be persecuted in order to get them to work for others in various places. (Review and Herald, 1911, par. 2). Philip like many of the early church members was forced to leave Jerusalem and relocate. The book of Acts details how Philip ended up in Samaria and that while there he preached, performed miracles and healed the sick. Philip was a refugee. He was away from home, persecuted for his faith, but he did not succumb to apathy or depression. Instead he exercised his faith by finding the needs in the community around him and meeting those needs. It had to take faith and a strong relationship to get beyond his circumstance and reach out.

Philip fits the first part of our definition of a missionary because he was in a country that was not his own. However, his circumstance was a little different because his initial travel was not voluntary. Philip along with other members of the early church were “scattered.” Here is where the second part of the traditional definition of a missionary comes in-doing religious work. It is also in this second half that Philip exhibits two distinct traits essential to missionary work: the ability to listen and the willingness to act.

While in Samaria Philip hears a call from God telling him to “Go south to the road-the desert road-that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (Acts 8:26). This sounds like an arbitrary instruction. My first thought, if I were to receive an instruction like this one, would be to ask, “Why?” Why do I need to go to a “road” of all places, when I’m doing real work here in Samaria? Many times we view a call from God to complete a task as permanent. We think that we will be in a certain place or circumstance forever. However, the call may be more about flexibility. Maybe our role is only a small piece of the puzzle not the whole. As a result, we are in a place or circumstance for brief periods of time.

In hearing the call we, like Philip have to listen and act or we miss the point. Instead of the knee jerk reaction of asking why and fighting the direction he was given, Philip heard the call and went to the road. He made himself available. He is the ultimate example of being in the right place at the right time. He had just been involved in an amazing evangelistic effort. He must have been tired. It would have been a good time to take a break. But that was not his permanent role. Philip was asked to continue to be placed where he could reach another person. He listened. At that point Philip moves from being an unknown worker to one of the most famous persons in the Bible.

Philip’s actions are more remarkable for what he does not do. He is removed from performing miracles on a grand scale to the simple task of explaining the Bible to someone who just couldn’t understand. Remember, Philip is now on a road. He could have rejected the idea of going in the first place but he did not. He went willingly. H could have been condescending when he was approached and asked to explain what the Ethiopian was reading. He did not, instead he readily shared what he knew.

All of that is great but, really, how does it apply to me? Practically speaking, Philip provides us with the tools we need to be modern day missionaries. Philip’s mission field was not only a “foreign” land it was also “a road.” We are not just missionaries overseas. The mission field we are given may be as small as the road that Philip was given. Daily we interact with other people and daily we are called to meet their needs. Our first step is to develop a strong enough relationship to hear when we are called. Have you ever planned to be somewhere by a specific time and every obstacle possible is placed in the way? How did you react? Were you frustrated because your plans were not coming together or did you look for another alternative? If we are not closely tied to God and are not able to listen then we miss opportunities. Opportunities that may seem small to us but are immeasurable in the grand scheme of salvation.

Listening and acting can be as simple as explaining something to someone who doesn’t understand. Here again the story of Philip and the Ethiopian provides us with an outline of how to react to the call we receive. Philip had to determine what was this man’s struggle? He read the Bible and couldn’t understand. He was desperate for someone to help. We need to ask ourselves whether in my neighborhood, in my church is there someone desperate for help? E.G. White captures this sentiment perfectly when she states, “it is his plan that men are to work for their fellow men.” (Review and Herald, 191, par. 16). In this sense we are all missionaries. Modern missionary work requires working for others. That work can be as simple as listening to a friend in crisis. These puzzle pieces- listening to the call, acting on the call, and adjusting our view of the mission field- are how Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian informs our day to day mission.

Missionary. Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster 2015. Web. 8 August 2015, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/missionary

White, E.G. The Gospel in Samaria. Review and Herald. March 1911. Retrieved August 18, 2015, from http://egwtext.whiteestate.org/publication.php?pubtype=Periodical&bookCode=RH&lang=en&year=1911&month=March&day=2&m=1&paragraphReferences=1

The New International Version Bible. Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001. Print.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7058
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Perhaps, using Philip the deacon as an example, one might extend the role of missionary to the effect of Gospel on one’s own family. Philip had four unmarried daughters who prophesied in Caesarea and whose counsel from God was respected by the nascent Christian church.


“Missionary” is not found in the Scriptures! Phillip, therein, is identified as euaggelistés (Strong’s 2099). (Perhaps it is time to read the Bible as it is written, rather than reading it to conform to, and confirm, some contemporary bias.) Bearing the Good News is not a matter of place, as identified by Webster, but a matter of vocation, the incessant response to the Holy Spirit within.

But it gets worse! “Missionaries” are adulated in Adventism for all the freaky ‘stars in their crowns.’ Many have gone off as servants of pride, for which Jesus says, “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

Trust God.


Given that there are many Seventh-day Adventists who find the study of hermeneutics to be very much a mystery, I would like to offer some insights from this week’s Sabbath School lesson:

  1. The story of Phillip and the Ethiopian illustrates that there is no such thing as a “plain meaning” of a text. Words do not declare their own meaning. Ability to read a text does not guarantee ability to understand the text read. A “plain meaning” approach to interpretation of the biblical text was of no help to the Ethiopian and is of no help to Seventh-day Adventists today.

  2. Who is Phillip? Luke makes clear that Phillip is Hermes, the messenger of the gods, not in a literal sense of course but in a figurative sense. The word “hermeneutics” is derived from Hermes’ name. You cannot understand hermeneutics until you first understand Hermes, as depicted in Greek mythological writings. We see that the Greeks address Paul as Hermes and offer sacrifices to him. Acts 14:8-20. That biblical text demands that its understanding is dependent upon our understanding of who Hermes is. That our understanding of the biblical text is dependent upon a reading about Hermes in Greek mythological writings is illustrative of the “historical” prong of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic. Phillip is just like Paul, and is as deserving of being mistakenly characterized as the literal Hermes. So let’s look at some of the characteristics shared by Phillip and Hermes, as set forth in the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian:

    a. Both Phillip and Hermes are messengers of the gods, as it were, in that they deliver divine messages.
    b. Phillip, like Hermes, transcends time and space, as illustrated in his mysterious vanishing after his encounter with the Ethiopian. This mysterious vanishing echoes the mysterious vanishing of Jesus, after Jesus interprets the Scriptures to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Transcendence of time and space is a prominent motif in Luke’s writings.
    c. Phillip, like Hermes, bridges mortality and the divine. Hermes functions as a bridge in this way, in that he is the son of the divine Zeus and the mortal nymph Maia. Phillip functions as a bridge in this way, in that he is a mortal who has become a temple of the Holy Spirit.
    d. Hermes bridges the realm of the gods and the underworld, in that he escorts souls to the underworld. Phillip bridges heaven and hell, in that he preaches the Gospel and helps fallen souls secure eternal salvation.
    e. A hermeneutic is like a bridge that helps us overcome distance that is manifested in so many different ways. The statues of Hermes were placed at boundaries, perimeters, and cross-ways, in recognition of his ability to overcome distance that separates. Phillip helps the Ethiopian overcome distance that separates, distance that prevents the Ethiopian from understanding the text. The Ethiopian is distant from the text by virtue of his culture, race, social standing, geography, language, physicality, sexual orientation, and how he is historically situated. Phillip’s interpretation of the text overcomes all of those manifestations of distance.

There are many other characteristics shared by Phillip and Hermes I could discuss if I had more time. I reiterate that an understanding of Hermes is vital to an understanding of hermeneutics.

One final thought: Who is the Ethiopian? Before Phillip interprets the text, the Ethiopian is nothing. The Ethiopian does not exist in any meaningful way. To be is to understand. His being is dependent upon his understanding. The study of hermeneutics focuses not only upon the text but also upon what and who we are. Our interpretation of a text, especially the biblical text, changes us. The theological/philosophical focus of hermeneutics is just as important, and perhaps more important, than the methodological focus of hermeneutics.


A missionary is a person with a mission.The fundamental question is what was the mission of Philip and does that set a pattern for all subsequent mission carriers? His mission according to the story was to explain an Old Testment text as fulfilled in Christ. Strange that Adventism uses the Old Testanent for sectarian purposes. We should recall how Jesus used Isaiah to announce His mission. If we are to be missionaries we should use the Old Testnebt to validate the Gospel, not some end time scheme. Tom Z


May I add an aspect hardly to be prooved by Bible texts : How and whay did this man come to Jerusalem and purchases some literature? - Is it right to assume that there was some connection to Jerusalem after the encounter Solomon - Queen of Sheba ? The eunuch coming and - as I suppose - searching something to learn from a society that ecluded eunuchs (Deut. 23 : 2 ) explicitely ? - - And the results : There is a book of an SDA author about the “African roots” (I apologize for not finding it immediately on my bookshelves). There is the paper "Der christiche Sabbat in Aethiopien " by Hammerschmidt ( see Libraray Semionar Schloss Bogenhofen) about the Sabbath worship obviously through quite more than a millenium - until finally the Jesuits came - - - - When did "Mission to the Africans " begin ? - And what about the millenium of Christianity there we lost our view on ?


I greatly appreciated your post Phil, because you caught the essence of the critical theme in the lesson.

With your thoughts…these scriptures stand out as more significant.

Nehemiah 8:8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.

2 Timothy 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

1 Corinthians 14:9 So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.

The literal plain /meaning of the following passage implies that God prefers white sins to red ones.

Isaiah 1:18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

The Contemporary church is flooded with ambiguous, abstract, obscure generalizations and clichés that do not lead to sanctification…ie
"Let go and let God", “power in the blood”, "keep your eyes on Jesus"
Much of it is basically modern religious lip service.

The church lingo is really just another foreign language.
justification, sanctification, reconciliation, propitiation, glorification, etc…


Actually hermeneutics is derived from the Greek word hermeneus, to interpret. It has no connection with the Greek God interestingly enough. The points of what Hermes does and what Paul and Philip do are comparable.

To me, Powell presents an unsettling faultless idealized view of Philip. Saying he had “faith and a strong relationship,” “not succumb to apathy or depression”, “ability to listen and the willingness to act…” When the Biblical accounts give further information about individuals such as King David–they are never romanticize. Many relate better to heroes with flaws, such as Peter, then to perfect saints.

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I was also struck by the reading of Philip’s emotional states and landscapes into the text. To me, it becomes a real stretch.

We don’t know, by the biblical text, how he felt going down that desert road, before he met the eunuch. Bewildered, excited, frightened, peaceful, stressed? We just don’t know. He could have felt any, all, or none of these. All we know, is that Philip went, regardless of what he was feeling, which seems to be the main point of the article. We also know that the eunuch went away rejoicing after hearing the gospel, and receiving Christ. That’s the only emotion that is explicitly described in the story.

The reason this matters to me, is that I’ve too often heard how Christians “should” feel. If we’re believers, we’re told that we should feel at peace, joyful, positive, etc. Such thinking fails to take into account the rich complexity of our emotional lives, and all that can impact them, even as believers. One only needs to read the psalms to see that David felt the gamut of emotions, from intense joy, to despair, to anger, to calm devotion, as he expressed his spiritual life and musings in song.

Augustine one said that God is man fully alive. To me, that includes the full range of our emotions, not just the “approved” Christian ones.




Jesus commissioned us to take the gospel to every corner of the earth for a witness “and then the end will come.” Not a word about hermeneutics. Jesus asked the Father to bless those who go into the world praying, As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. that is the definition of missionary.

One important note, Jesus sent out the disciples as a witness - that’s all. We call everything we do “witnessing” whether it be giving out literature, or mowing the old lady’s lawn. When Jesus spoke of witness he referred to a personal experience - a personal witness to Christ. “Missionaries” have nothing to say without that experience.

When those words were penned, it didn’t matter what Greek word was used - and where - and what it meant. It was a simple telling of a personal witness to Christ. These days that’s not enough - because we parse our words and we weigh every jot and tittle - to prove that our telling of the story is the correct one, as opposed to that other guy’s. Today being a missionary is a vocation; and possibly an important entry on our resume. Better yet, if we were born in the “mission field” - add two points.

As for “hermeneutics” - it has become necessary because every GC session requires precision as defined by the powers that be. No personal mission here. We must speak in unison, like a choir, whether we understand what we’re saying or not; whether we believe what we’re saying or not. Like Jesus wondered, “will He find faith here when He returns?”

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